Putting our migration systems into view in a family violence emergency

The family violence crisis for women on temporary visas

The reality for all women on any form of temporary visa is that service providers are limited in what they are funded to support if they experience family violence and seek assistance.
family violence

On May 21st it was reported that Kamaljeet Sidhu was found dead in her home: allegedly killed by her husband. Kamaljeet held a temporary visa: specifically, a student visa.

So far, this year 21 women have been killed by their current or former partners so why draw attention to Kamaljeet’s visa status?

Across Australia family violence services, and alliances such as Australian Women Against Violence Alliance (AWAVA) and Harmony Alliance: Migrant and Refugee Women for Change, came together in 2019 to identify a significant hurdle to support experienced by many thousands of women in Australia: their visa status.

Collectively this group has identified some of the serious service limitations and a reform map. But why does the migration system matter?

Different visas bring different conditions: for example, tourist visa holders cannot work and have no access to income or welfare support, student visa holders are required to hold private health insurance to cover medical costs that arise while in Australia and have the right to work up to 40 hours per fortnight.

But the reality for all women on any form of temporary visa is that service providers are limited in what they are funded to support if they experience family violence and seek assistance: women without any guaranteed income (eg those who cannot work or access Centrelink) cannot be easily accommodated in temporary housing, women on temporary visas cannot access Centrelink to afford the costs associated with leaving an abusive partner.

Securing safety for women cannot be achieved when visa status limits support.

Beyond support, though, a significant issue is women’s futures: whether or not they hold a visa that is connected to their abusive partner, their partner holds incredible power. His threats of deportation are tangible: for some women, the threat of returning to their country of origin is the threat of returning home unmarried, with the long term social stigma that brings to themselves and whole family.

In 2017 as part of a major study in Victoria examining the existing risk assessment and management framework, one support worker said to us:

I have a client call me that because they … [were] married back home in the community, they invite relatives and people come to the wedding ceremony. So everybody know that she got married. So [this] client … told me that, ‘If I have to go back, I’d rather die here’. So that’s how serious, how fearful when the perpetrator threaten to send them back, because they know that the woman … [is] too ashamed to go back.  

For other women, this threat is compounded by uncertainty of their rights when they have Australian-born children who are citizens. From the largest study of temporary migration and family violence in Australia it was clear that perpetrators use migration status to control women. Many women disclosed these experiences:

(from a case report) many times he has threatened to divorce her and send her back to Vietnam. He threatened to take the baby away from her after she gave birth, which made her very scared and distressed.

We cannot ignore the implication and consequence of uncertainty of rights, livelihood, and future has for women.

Our migration system is complex and expensive to navigate. There is one safety net for women who experience family violence: the family violence provisions.

These allow women on temporary partners visas to access permanent residency if they demonstrate the relationship was genuine and that family violence occurred and was the reason for the breakdown of the marriage. This is something: but it is not accessed widely.  We know there are approximately 500 applications per year, while the rate of granted partner visas is around 40 thousand per year.  In my 2017 study, it was revealed that 40 per cent of these applications come from one service: suggesting that widespread use nationally is not in place.

Relying on the family violence provisions as the safety net for migrant women, serves to silence the more complex reality of abuse and coercion for women who are not eligible to access it. Women who are encouraged or compelled to visit their husbands on a tourist visa, women whose partners refuse to apply for a partner visa, women who are on a student visa who marry their partner but do not change their visa: these women have no specific rights in Australia nor any specific safety net.

The system fails to offer any support for these women. More importantly: it empowers perpetrators. All over Australia abusive partners and former partners threaten women and their children. For women who are temporary there are compounding aspects of these threats that are tied to uncertainty of their rights and the absence of support. There are no consequences for men who use this leverage, but it is a powerful tool in exercising control and coercion. The migration system works to constrain our welfare supports and to perpetuate uncertainty for women who hold temporary visas.

It is not feasible nor desirable to suggest that anyone on a temporary visa who experiences family violence should automatically access a permanent visa: but it is possible to recognise that the current system is failing women, including Kamaljeet, and that we can do better.

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